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Help find E.T. in Pittsburgh

There are aliens in Pittsburgh walking among us, according to Mike Zelechowski, who is soliciting support on Kickstarter to raise $703 to help fund his search.

Zelechowski runs aliensearchguide.weebly.com, where he posts "up to date" information about Bigfoot and the aftereffects of alien abduction. Previously, he ran a podcast, but encountered some equipment failures that set him back, causing him to turn to Kickstarter to continue his search.

On his website, he claims to have had his first alien encounter eight years ago, while volunteering to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina. "I believe that extraterrestrials are here on Earth, having met one, and walking among us as we speak," he wrote on his Kickstarter page. People in nearby Kecksburg, Westmoreland County, known for its famous UFO crash, may agree with him. 

Whether Zelechowski can be believed or whether his work should be viewed as fact, fiction or art, the dedication he has to his craft (no pun intended) and his spirit of inquiry is admirable and innovative. He has published an e-book, "Alien Search Guide," which purports to help average people find aliens in their midst. Another e-book, called "Psychic Ghost Stories," may be worth buying since it's only $.99-- and Halloween is just around the corner.

"One basic tenet brings us here today, the search for alien life," Zelechowski writes in the introduction to "Alien Search Guide." "We have a curiosity that cannot be extinguished. We want to know more, we need to know more." With curiosity like that, if aliens are here in Pittsburgh, Zelechowski will be first to find them.

Thrival will show entreprenuers a good time

Many revelers will gather at Thrival this weekend to check out the festival's musical lineup, but for area entrepreneurs, the festival offers the opportunity to network, learn something new and maybe even be discovered, according to Thrill Mill CEO Bobby Zappala.

Zappala says the music and innovation festival started in 2007 because he and friends in the startup community felt they needed somewhere to have a good time while learning about what entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh were up to.

"People were doing interesting things, but they weren’t really communicating effectively," says Zappala, whose start-up incubator organized the festival. He described the festival as a local South-by-Southwest, "except instead of spotlighting talent from other places, we are shining a light on what's already here."

Buried behind the headlining acts, the event offers a free panel of workshops from September 8 through 14 aimed at entrepreneurs. Zappala says part of the thought behind this was to connect area startups with others who might be able to assist them and to help incubators like his discover new great ideas.

"In some places like Silicon Valley ideas are a dime a dozen," Zappala says, "but here in Pittsburgh, everyone wants to hear what you've come up with."

The panels are listed here, some require registration ahead of time, but Zappala says, "If there's something you're really curious about, just show up."

Who knows, your big idea could be discovered by one of the area's many startup backers including AlphaLab, Thrill Mill, The Sprout Fund or New Sun Rising. Google will also be hosting a workshop as will Chatham University.

Tickets to the muscial portion of the event are being sold at http://www.showclix.com/event/THRIVAL and cost $45 for one day and $75 for the entire weekend festival. Zappala said last year's event drew a crowd of around 2000 people and he expects this year's festival, featuring performers including Moby, DJ Z Trip and Talib Kweli to attract even more patrons this year.

99 problems but a parking spot ain't one

Finding parking before Pirates games may seem to require as much luck and skill as winning the game itself, but Parking Panda can help, according to spokesman Bryan Lozano.

Lozano said the company, which recently expanded into Pittsburgh, uses aggregated data from different parking garages across the city to allow users to find the most convenient and cheapest parking spots. The company also allows drivers to reserve guaranteed spaces before Pirates games, so you can roll up to the game as late or as early as you want without fear. "We are trying to make the experience seamless," Lozano said, "one of our tag lines is we want to make parking painless and that’s because it’s a pain."

As far as parking goes, in Pittsburgh we have it pretty good comparatively. In some cities, on street parking is so hard to find that an app called MonkeyParking allows drivers to sell public spots to each other! Thankfully we haven't reached that level (barring outrageous meter rates), but it would be nice if Parking Panda worked with the city or Google Maps (or a wizard?) to show drivers daily and monthly street parking regulations. Currently, the service only works with garages, but you can try your luck with street parking, then if you don't see any, you can use Parking Panda's iPhone or Android app to find the best deal in your area. "If a garage is sold out it will say that on the website, so you don't have to drive around in circles," Lozano said.

The service is also available in other cities including parking nightmare Philly and nearby cities like Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, so do your research before you drive into a downtown death trap aka Philly! "The hardest part is the behavioral change—getting people to realize this is even an option," Lozano said, "parking is often the last thing you do and many people don't put much thought into it until they can't find a spot." Don't be that person!

Lozano said that since Parking Panda allows garages to see the prices of competitors and reach out directly to customers, it may lead to more competitive garage pricing. "I think it’s also about pushing cities to examine how they do their parking," Lozano said.

But, if you are a neophyte or don't want to reserve a spot with Parking Panda, there's always the good ole Pittsburgh parking chair.
 

Lyft gets lift-off from PUC, but where will ride sharing take us?

After much battling, taxi service Lyft has received reprieve and will be temporarily allowed to operate in Pittsburgh, while competitor Uber is expected to receive results from its hearings with the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission this week.

Mayor Bill Peduto has spoken out in favor of the ride sharing services, and residents of Pittsburgh, who previously had difficulty finding cabs are in love with it. Patron Jess Netto used pink-mustachioed Lyft to pick her up from the bus station late at night, and was impressed with the driver's swift arrival and with her ability to see her ride approaching.

"Once you request a ride and a driver accepts, the app shows you a picture of your driver and a picture of the car they will be driving," Netto says.

She rode from Oakland to Lawrenceville and paid $10 plus tip.

"You can get anyone to say it's a simple process, but I don't think that's the unique part of it," Netto says. "I think that it's a very communal process. It allows you to get to know your neighbors, they are all about asking you to sit up front, its not about this service-client relationship," she adds.

The service is also donation based, with a suggested amount that may be raised or lower at customer's discretion.


Individuals using personal vehicles to tote passengers around is not a new thing. Jitney service still abounds, with ride share posters on craigslist claiming they will take passengers anywhere they need to go. However unlike Lyft drivers, who undergo strict background checks, you never know who you are going to get when you call a jitney. Similarly, jitney drivers take a risk with passengers, especially after ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber snatch up customers and use passenger rating systems to safeguard drivers. Jitney driving, which once was a possibly dangerous but thriving business may have arguably become more dangerous and less thriving.

However, in addition to providing a valuable service, Lyft and Uber provide valuable jobs. The companies work by allowing car owners with newer, four-door vehicles to sign up to be drivers. Drivers work on their own schedules and use the company's app to find and accept riders. However, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times, fighting for passengers has already started between the companies. Allegations of competing drivers creating false ride requests to divert each other abound. And local cab companies are none too happy about the appearance of ride sharing services, claiming it cuts in to their business. But Netto says her driver was a former cabbie and was happy to be working for the company.

"He told me it was nice to work for a place that cared as much about its passengers as its drivers," Netto says.

Right now, Lyft and Uber may be just what Pittsburgh needs.

"I remain thankful to Gov. Tom Corbett for standing with me and others in support of these innovative 21st Century businesses," Peduto said in a statement in support of the companies.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the PUC and state legislature on a permanent solution for community-powered transportation in Pennsylvania," said Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson, following news of her company's temporary license.

However, as we become increasingly dependent upon technology created in Silicon Valley to provide us daily services and act as a go-between for more and more of life's social and business interactions, we should think about the line between consumer and dependent and make sure to safeguard our autonomy. We should think not only about what these companies are providing to us, but about what we are providing to them, and set up agreements that will be beneficial to Pittsburgh's growth for years to come.

Pittsburgh Brewing Company pouring on new label

Are you over 21? If so, then keep reading because Pittsburgh Brewing Company just introduced a new brand seeking to appeal to craft beer drinkers and rolled out a Pumpkin Ale that will be available until October. The Block House brand is headquartered in Lawrenceville, with brewing operations taking place in Latrobe.

The beverage represents what Pittsburgh Brewing Company CEO Brian Walsh called an admittedly late foray into Pittsburgh's thriving craft beer scene in an interview with Pittsburgh Business Times. Walsh told the Times a double chocolate bock will be coming out in October, and another spring and summer product will round out the collection, providing a year round offering from the label available for purchase in stores.

Though we have yet to taste the Block House Brewing Pumpkin Ale here at Pop City, Beer Advocate gives the 7.00 ABV beverage 75 out of 100 possible points, which is a much higher score than Pittsburgh Brewing Company's flagship brand Iron City beer received. The beer is described as a medium-body ale in a glowing golden-orange color with subtle reddish shading. In a press release, the company says the beverage "enchants the nose with a wallop of graham cracker crust, ginger snap cookies, and subtle notes of brown sugar." The alcohol content isn't super high for a craft beer, but is above that of the brewing company's other products.

"The boldness of the 7.0% ABV is hidden beneath layers of creamy vanilla, hearty nutmeg and a hint of caramel that when blended together creates a homemade pumpkin pie taste," the press release states.

Though Walsh is late to the craft beer party, Pittsburgh Brewing Company has been around for a VERY long time. The regional brewery started in 1861, giving it over 150 years of experience making various beers in various cans as well as various amazing commercials for them. I just spent WAY too much time on their website watching their amazing oeuvre and have selected several vintage ads for your viewing pleasure. If you don't get a jingle in your head or a sense of Pittsburgh pride in your heart, check your pluse. We can only hope commercials for the Pumpkin Ale will be as inspiring.

Pittsburgh Brewing Company Commercial Oeuvre

Workin' on a Cold Iron presents a unique view of the city: 
 

But check out the rich history of the brewing company: 
 
And the song that will absolutely stay in your head, "The Pumper":
Another extremely catchy jingle aka my new favorite dance song:
#PittsburghPride :

And the strangest commercial, which I call "elevator music": 
Tell me which was your favorite commercial @fakepretty because I want to know I am not alone in my old ad #PittsburghPride obsession.

Touch your data with Kinetica

The Internet has allowed us instant access to more data than we ever imagined. Wikipedia is getting fatter and fatter everyday! However, as information proliferates, the question of how to organize it becomes more pressing. In the past, simple spreadsheets would suffice, but a new company in Pittsburgh wants to tap into the tactile nature of devices like tablets and smartphones and create data you can move and touch.

Jeffrey Rzeszotarski, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute developed Kinetica with assistant professor Niki Kittur. Rzeszotarski says Kinetica's goal is to make data interaction intuitive and allow data to be manipulated more easily.

"I just heard a good quote today that it's not about big data, it's about big answers," Rzeszotarski says. "We are trying to think of ways we can show the data so that people understand what it means and feel empowered to do something with it."


So far, the pair has invited users to manipulate all sorts of data, ranging from what one might find on the back of a cereal box to data related to the Titanic.

"In our testing, we've found that because it matches people's intuition, people can make more findings and communicate their findings better," Rzeszotarski says.

Excel users analyzing data on Titanic shipwreck passengers might extract facts such as the passengers' average age, but Kinetica users also saw data relationships, like the association between age and survival. While learning to use Excel spreadsheets to their maximum potential may be time consuming and boring, Kinetica presents data that seems to be alive as it moves across the screen based upon intuitive gestures. Kinetica users can manipulate information using their fingers to sort, filter, stack, flick and pull data points as needed to answer questions or examine data interaction.

The program also allows users to view multiple data points simultaneously.

"People often try to make sense of data where you have to balance many dimensions against each other, such as deciding what model of car to buy," Kittur says. "It's not enough to see single points—you want to understand the distribution of the data so you can balance price vs. gas mileage vs. horsepower vs. head room."

So when can we get our hands on this magical app? Rzeszotarski says he's still working on it. He recently obtained funding from AlphaLab for Kinetica's parent company, DataSquid and is in the process of testing the app. To get updates as they develop, sign up for Kinetica's mailing list here.

Nebulus brings musicians together in the cloud

For musical collaboration, just look to the cloud and you will find Nebulus, a new website that allows for virtual collaboration without having to store large data files on your home computer.
 
Created by musician and Carnegie Mellon computer science graduate Robert Kotcher, the site allows users to record and edit audio online and add on to tracks that have already been recorded. Kotcher says Nebulus is like a mixture of Google Docs the online document storage and editing application, Apple’s recording software Garage Band, and the popular music-sharing site Sound Cloud, “Except there are no local files you need to store,” he says.
 
Anyone who has a large iTunes collection knows that audio files can take up a huge amount of space on a computer, often slowing down its functionality.

“We are all musicians,” Kotcher says of his startup team, “we all have different musical backgrounds and we’ve all had the same problems, where we go and record our tracks, save it locally, send it to the next guy and eventually you end up with 10 different versions on your computer,” he explains.

If users want to download the final track from Nebulus they can, but they don’t ever have to store the rejected recordings and they can work together to edit the piece like users can in Google Docs.
 
Before cloud computing—yes I said it—musicians would all have to go to the same studio to record a song, creating scheduling problems and requiring travel. If anyone remembers, that great band The Postal Service (circa 2001, hits such as The District Sleeps Alone Tonight) got their name because the band members would actually send eachother recordings in the mail in order to collaborate on songs, because the Internet couldn’t store huge files. Welcome to the future!
 
“What we wanted to do was to emulate what musicians do in the studio through the layering recording process, where one player records a track and then another person comes and records a track over them,” Kocher says. He and his partners are all musicians and they’ve had a great time playing together while perfecting the software.
 
Nebulus is allowing us to share its link with you for the first time publicly, so use it wisely and record your next greatest work at Nebulus.io

Easily choose art with Easely

Pandora picks music, OkCupid gives okay dating suggestions and now, Pittsburgh-based start-up Easely will predict which art you will like.

The art vending website was devised after co-founder and CEO Ashwin Muthiah saw how difficult it was for his girlfriend to make ends meet as an artist. He decided to use his computer science background to attack the problem, and came up with a business that will launch this month. Easely uses visual and textual questionnaires to determine which artworks to send to which users in a process that is part data, part psychology and part gut instinct, according to Muthiah.

Users must tell Easely how much space they have to devote to a work of art and can also let the website know which color palate they prefer. Like the popular glasses website Warby Parker, Easely then lets users try until they buy, mailing ready to hang artwork to your door. "If you don't like what we send you, we’ll go back to the drawing board, literally" Muthiah says.

His goal is to "reinvigorate the social prominence of art" and make it as easy to purchase as other media, which can be obtained by the click of a button.

"A lot of people out there who love art don’t know how to get it or have tons of money to get it," Muthiah says, offering up his site as a solution to the problem.

The art available on Easely is nowhere near as expensive as art purchased through most galleries, giving it a broader appeal. It's Muthiah's hope that by making art accessible, new artists will be able to support themselves and find a market for their work. The website accepts submissions from artists and uses a team of curators to asses the work accepted into its collection. Artists earn 25 percent commission if the work sells.

"I see a lot of young artists turned away from art based upon the market," Muthiah says, explaining why he pays above average comission to artists, "we want to get everyone reengaged with artwork."
 
Fun Fact: Muthiah came to Pittsburgh from Atlanta to join AlphaLab, our friendly neighborhood startup accelerator. He says he will be hiring a software engineer and a business development person soon.

Emplified takes the guesswork out of employee retention

Right now the workforce is experiencing a major shift as baby boomers begin to retire and Millennials move in. With this shift comes a disconnect between traditional top-down management and employees, which has led to turnover and lost productivity across the board. Pittsburgh-based startup Emplified is breaking on to the scene with its employee-led retention solution for businesses that brings workforce engagement into the modern era.
 
“There’s a huge disengagement in the marketplace,” says Emplified founder and CEO Alex Gindin. “Only 30 percent of employees in the knowledge workforce are actively engaged in the market. The largest portion of disengagement belongs to Millennials right now because companies don’t know how to work with them.”
 
Gindin founded Emplified on the belief that workforce engagement is not something that can be delegated from the top-down through surveys and periodic performance reviews. 
 
“[Workforce engagement] must be cultivated and nurtured from within the organization and driven from the bottom up,” says Gindin. “It needs to show the context and impact of individual efforts on the organization and clearly reinforce individual career paths. This is where Emplified comes in. We elevate employees above their routine for a few moments each day in order to let them capture and curate their professional development, business impact, personal accomplishments and individual needs.”
 
This seems like a tall order, bur Emplified provides this service through its secure online platform and facilitates regular dialogue with individual employees to uncover critical blind spots, navigate career paths and help them take control of their employment.
 
“We empower employees to manage up by amplifying their skills, accomplishments and needs and provide managers with critical insights needed to grow, shape and retain their people,” says Gindin.
 
Emplified is looking to work with companies in the small-medium business market in high volatility turnover fields like technology, sales, marketing and advertising.
 
“Most of those companies don’t have HR capabilities themselves, or if they do, HR is not their core expertise or core competency,” says Gindin.
 
Gindin first had the idea for Emplified about seven years ago when he managed a team of employees at Morgan Stanley in New York. As a young manager, he says it was hard to understand what his employees actually wanted in an economy where it was difficult to retain talent.
 
Using a model that employs a framework rooted in cognitive psychology, Emplified elevates people above their day-to-day routines or workloads to give them a perspective of where they actually are, where they are heading and their progress toward getting there.
 
As the former director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Pantherlab Works in the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, Gindin has solid experience launching products and technologies and bringing them to the marketplace. Emplified recently completed its alpha phase and is streamlining the platform and addressing scalability this summer with plans to release a full-featured version in September.

Locally created, handsfree smartphone mounts rival GoPro

David Rost lives an active lifestyle and like many others in this digital age, he enjoys documenting his adventures and sharing them with friends and family via social media. The problem is that with hands tied up holding cameras and other technology, it can be difficult to fully enjoy the experience.
 
Several years ago, he was skiing in Colorado and wanted to film the beauty of the landscape for his kids. Not interested in spending $300-400 on a GoPro, he opted to use his iphone 4, holding the phone in his hand while skiing. This gave him the idea to develop something that would allow him to use his devices handsfree. Using elastic, clips, a few cases and his smartphone, he developed an early prototype for a chest harness. Since then, Rost launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $28,000 and developed a variety of mounts under the name READYACTION.
 
In addition to the chest harness, Pittsburgh-based READYACTION offers mounts for bike handles and ski poles, helmets and cars and motorcycles. And new to the collection is the "office" chest harness that allows for handsfree use of tablets, which would be useful for such professions as teachers and home inspectors, says Rost. All products are priced at $50 and under.

There are many everyday uses for the mounts, too. The ski pole and bike attachment can be used in the back of cars so kids can watch movies and the car and motorcycle mounts are perfect for using the GPS function on smartphones.
 
Rost says his products "are just making all your devices easier and more fun to use."
 
iPhone Life Magazine recently reviewed the READYACTION catalog of products and gave them a rating of four and a half stars out of five, praising the lightweight construction, easy on/off design, customizable brackets to fit any size smartphone, and secure fittings that hold devices safely in place, allowing for high-quality video footage.
 
Last week, READYACTION went from a provisional patent to patent pending in the United States and has an international patent pending as well.
 
"If we are able to get a patent on this marketplace, we will be a market leader and perhaps the only one in the market. That means we can license our products all over the world, country by country."
 
READYACTION products can be purchased through the company's website, and Rost is hoping to get them on the shelves of retailers in the not too distant future. 

Highlights from Demo Day

On Tuesday, a crowd of about 500 people flocked to see demos by the current cohort of companies at Alphalab, which was recently ranked the sixth best accelerator in the country. This Demo Day also marked the debut of Alphalab Gear, a hardware and robotic startup accelerator. For the first time, the event was held at Stage AE to accommodate the ever-growing crowd, a testament to the excitement and momentum surrounding Pittsburgh innovation.
 
With so much talent in Pittsburgh, it’s no wonder Illana Diamond, managing director of Alphalab Gear, says it’s the mentorship and extensive alumni network that make Alphalab/Alphalab Gear standout from their counterparts. Indeed, in a survey led by MIT professor Yael Hochberg, entrepreneurs ranked Alphalab third in the nation for general mentorship and industry-specific knowledge.
 
Both Alphalab and Alphalab Gear are part of Innovation Works, the region’s largest seed stage investor. Investing in and providing business assistance to high-potential seed and early-stage tech companies in the Pittsburgh region, Innovation Works has made a name for itself as one of the nation’s most active seed investors.
 
While Innovation Works is certainly a major player in the Pittsburgh innovation scene, the city as a whole continued to outpace national averages in the amount of venture dollars invested in regional companies from 2009-13, according to a report by Ernst and Young and Innovation Works that was released earlier this spring. The report also points to the growing number of successful company exits as proof of Pittsburgh’s success as a hub for innovation.
 
Read on for highlights from the Demo Day presentations.
 
Last year, the United States threw away 40 percent of its food supply. FreshTemp, an Alphalab Gear company, aims to eliminate waste by making it easy to monitor and manage the temperature of perishable goods across the entire supply chain. Cloud-based Freshtemp automates temperature collection during production, transportation, and the storage of any product via state-of-the-art Bluetooth devices. The company is already working with some big names in the food industry, including Wendy’s and Popeyes.
 
What’s lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel? Carbon fiber. Just one problem, until now, manufacturing carbon fiber products has been cost prohibitive to only the aerospace and automotive industries. That’s where Alphalab Gear’s RapidTPC comes in. RapidTPC has developed a proprietary manufacturing process that enables consumer markets to automate the mass production of parts from composite materials – reducing both initial capital costs and production costs by 90 percent. Replacing materials with composites can reduce the weight of a product by 50 percent. The company is already working with a baby product company and plans to expand into the sporting goods industry in the future.

CDL Warrior, an Alphalab company, is a mobile platform for commercial truck drivers and fleets. It saves truckers time and increases productivity through tools that simplify mandatory logs that keep drivers compliant, thus avoiding costly fees and lost time on the road. The app also has a feature to quickly facilitate resolutions to long wait times and other events that delay drivers while sending automated, real-time alerts to their dispatch.

Conversant Labs: Improving assistive technology for the visually impaired

Chris Maury’s vision has been on the decline since he was diagnosed with Stargardt macular degeneration in early 2011. The genetic eye disorder causes progressive vision loss, usually to the point of legal blindness. 

Shortly after his diagnosis, Maury left his job as product manager at Klout in San Francisco to develop accessibility technology for those who suffer from vision loss and impairment. In 2012, he founded Conversant Labs to improve the lives of the blind through improved access to technology. The following year, Maury moved the company to Pittsburgh. 

“While we are an accessibility company, our core technology is speech recognition and voice-enabled applications,” says Maury. “Carnegie Mellon is where a lot of the research in these fields was started, and being based here in Pittsburgh allows us to draw on that expertise.”

Conversant Labs builds audio-only applications for the blind and visually impaired. The company is one of the start-ups in the current cycle at AlphaLab, a leading accelerator in the country. In addition to Founder/CEO Maury, the Conversant Labs team includes Greg Nicholas, a software developer with a background in natural language processing and building applications for the accessibility industry, and Fran Kostella, who has 30 years of experience building alternative user interfaces 

“The tools currently available for the blind to interact with everyday technologies are severely limited,” says Maury.  “Expensive, difficult to learn, and not supported by many common services, these products leave the majority of the blind community without access to computers or the internet.”

Maury recently spoke at the 29th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego. His talk focused on the limitations of traditional accessibility technology known as screen readers, which display web content visually for users on a monitor and convert text to synthesized speech so users can listen to the content.

“Screen readers are amazing tools for making computers and mobile devices minimally accessible, but the standard that we set for our tools should be much, much higher,” Maury says. “We should be creating applications and experiences that go beyond plain accessibility and focus instead on usability.”

“Our approach throws out the visual component, creating an audio-only experience optimized for blind users,” says Maury. “Using voice commands, users are able to complete tasks they might otherwise avoid.”

Conversant Lab’s first commercial application “Say: Shopping,” a voice-enabled shopping client for making online purchases that will allow blind users to shop independently.

“Shopping is one of these tasks that is difficult for the blind and visually impaired to do independently, often relying on others to go to the store for them,” says Maury. “Creating an experience that allows people to shop independently and from the comfort of their homes is a big win for improving quality of life.”

Say: Shopping is now in beta testing and will likely be released into the Apple App Store by the end of May. 

Writer: Amanda Leff Ritchie
Sources: Chris Maury, AlphaLab and conversantlabs.com

Pittsburgh Modular makes synthesizers used by musicians around the world

Richard Nicol is the creator and founder of Pittsburgh Modular, a synthesizer company that sells its music gear worldwide through about 25 dealers in the United States and a dozen more overseas. As a musician, Nicol has been fascinated with synths for many years and enjoys experimenting with them to produce new sounds. 

“You can create thousands of different worlds with the smallest turn of the knobs,” he says. 

About five years ago, Nicol took an advanced circuit building class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (PCA), where he met his instructor Michael Johnsen, who is now the “mad scientist” who designs the equipment that Nicol manufacturers and sells at Pittsburgh Modular. Johnsen still teaches analog circuit building classes at PCA, and is currently teaching a beginner level audio circuit course that covers such basics as soldering, construction, schematics and the idiosyncratic world of “circuit bending.”

Johnsen, who also teaches filmmaking to high school students, has nurtured a longterm interest in electronic music and the techniques that have been used to make it throughout the years. Helping people understand electronic music — all the way down to the circuit board — is practical knowledge to have in a very digital era, says Johnsen. 

Nicol began building handmade synthesizer modules in his basement as a hobby while working as a full-time software developer. Using bold components and dynamic layouts to promote interaction and experimentation, his creations resembled something built in a 1950s science fiction laboratory. It didn’t take long for people in the synth community to take notice and express interest in purchasing Nicol’s creations of modern analog circuitry, marking the birth of Pittsburgh Modular.

Pittsburgh Modular, which quickly outgrew Nicol’s basement, is headquartered in the former Mine Safety Appliance factory building, located at 201 North Braddock Ave. in Pittsburgh’s East End. 

Though Pittsburgh Modular is relatively young, there are some big names using its gear. Because the synths are sold through dealers, it’s not always possible to know who’s using them. But some of the big names they know of include Trent Reznor, Deadmau5 and Depeche Mode. 

In January, Pittsburgh Modular announced a full line of synthesizers and modular gear, which the company just began to ship. 

“Pittsburgh is a big music town — but it’s a rock ’n roll town,” says Nicol. “We weren’t sure how well [our synths] would sell in Pittsburgh.”

But to Nicol’s delight, Pittsburgh Modular gear is selling very well at its local dealer, Pianos N Stuff on Freeport Road.

“Pittsburgh is a great city to start a company,” says Nicol. “I don't think we could have built this company from ground zero to where we are now in most cities.”

The company also recently started Pittsburgh Modular Records and its first release was "Encryption Cypher,” a project with Herman Pearl (a.k.a. Soy Sos) of Tuff Sound Recording, who paired its synth sounds with remixed beats by Pittsburgh’s top hip-hop artists.  

Writer: Amanda Leff Ritchie
Sources: Richard Nicol & Michael Johnsen

A sense of play: Two Pittsburgh toy startups draw attention at national convention

It’s not easy to make a splash amid the more than 1,000 exhibitors at the American International Toy Fair, the giant trade show that ran earlier this month in New York City.
 
But two Pittsburgh startups, both launching highly innovative products marrying technology with play -- and both with connections to Carnegie Mellon and the AlphaLab accelerator -- drew a lot of buzz.

"This is definitely a David and Goliath story of startups grabbing attention from Hasbro, Disney, Leap Frog, etc.," says Terri Glueck of Pittsburgh's Innovation Works
 
PieceMaker Technologies is developing self-service, 3-D printing kiosks for toy stores. The "factory in a store" allows customers to personalize about 100 designs for toys, jewelry and other small gifts. Once they’ve designed their item, an employee produces it at the 3-D printing station in about 20 minutes. Suggested retail will range from $5 to $10.
 
Founded in 2013 by Carnegie Mellon engineering graduate students Arden Rosenblatt and Alejandro Sklar, Piecemaker is getting ready to test the concept at two Pittsburgh locations of S.W. Randall Toyes & Giftes this spring and plans an expanded, 10-store pilot for the holiday season.
 
The prototype on display at the toy fair drew press, including stories on CNBC and in Make magazine, "tons of signups" and interest from Disney for Disneyland locations, reports Rosenfeld.
 
Rosenfeld and Sklar build the kiosks in their quarters at AlphaLab Gear; they are among the first cohort of companies at the hardware and robotics accelerator.
 
Meanwhile, Digital Dream Labs has developed a system that allows children to control videogames by rearranging puzzle pieces. They are ramping up to start production this summer.
 
As grad students at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, Peter Kinney, Justin Sabo and Matt Stewart collaborated on an interactive exhibit for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The dreamTableTop is still in use in Pittsburgh, and the company has since produced three more for other children’s museums.
 
When they launched their company in 2012 and pitched to AlphaLab, the advice they received was that they needed to broaden their market. Drawing on the museum exhibit, Digital Dream Labs created its Ludos system -- a plastic tray that connects to a computer or device, 22 toy blocks and game software.
 
When Ludos starts shipping in late summer, it will be bundled with "Cork the Volcano," a game aimed at children six-and-older that teaches logic and sequencing. Other games for kids as young as four are in development.
 
Stewart says the company has a healthy number of pre-orders and several promising large contracts thanks to the toy show. The company currently employs four people (the three co-founders and artist Aaron Clark, a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh) and Stewart says the goal is to quadruple in-house staff by the end of 2015. Digital Dream Labs has outgrown its digs at AlphaLab and is looking for expanded space in Pittsburgh.

This piece originally appeared in our sister publication, Keystone Edge on Feb. 27.

Astrobotic a frontrunner in the Olympic-like race to the moon for the Google Lunar XPRIZE

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic remains firmly among the frontrunners in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, a race to the moon that is beginning to resemble an Olympic-style event.
 
The deadline to complete the lunar mission is October 2015. The first to the finish line wins a $30 million purse.
 
The Strip District robotics firm, a CMU spinout, has been a serious contender since the competition was announced in 2007. The XPRIZE pits university scientists from around the world against one another in a mission that involves creating the hardware and software to land on the moon, explore the lunar surface and relay high-definition footage back to Earth.
 
The idea behind the contest is to inspire engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world to develop low-cost methods of space exploration. But the sheer cost of the race itself has proved a hurdle for many.
 
“Most people are putting us on top of the rankings,” says John Thornton, CEO, who stopped short of predicting an outright win.
 
Thornton has been instrumental in growing the business side of Astrobotic, especially its payload to the moon business as a way to raise the money to win the money and, of course, the prestige that goes with it.
 
This month Astrobotic picked up $1.75 million as one of five finalists in the Google Lunar XPRIZE Milestone Prize, an award created to recognize the teams that have completed several of the objectives so far, technology for landing, mobility and imaging the mission.
 
Of the five teams selected, Astrobotic and Moon Express (Silicon Valley) were the only two to earn the cash award in all three categories. The other three milestone winners were Hakuto (Japan), Part-Time Scientists (Germany) and Team Indus (India).
 
Earlier this month, Astrobotic cut a deal with Astroscale in Singapore to transport the popular Asian sports drink, Pocari Sweat, to the lunar surface. It will be the first commercial beverage to touch down on the moon, says Thornton.
 
“For us, this is just like any other payload that we will fly to the moon,” he says. “That’s our business strategy, to carry payloads.”
 
Astrobotic plans to launch a robotic lander and rover aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in October 2015, exact date to be determined, for a four-day flight to the moon.
 
While the mission will be monitored from the space center, scientists from CMU will control the rover.
 
Astrobotic employs 12 and operates out of a warehouse in the Strip District, next to the Opera House, and plans to add another 5,200 square feet for a total of 8,000 square feet.
 
“We’ve come a long way,” says Thornton.
 
Writer: Deb Smit
Source: John Thornton, Astrobotic
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